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Alice in Wondertown

Alice in Wondertown
First Run Features
1991 / Color / 1:33 flat full frame / 90 min. / Street Date February 17, 2009 / 24.95
Starring Thais Valdés, Vanessa Carballido, Carlos Cruz, Idalmis Del Risco, Argentina Estevez, Jorge Losada.
Raúl Pérez Ureta
Film Editor Jorge Abello
Original Music Frank Delgado
Written by Jesús Díaz
Produced by Humberto Hernández
Directed by Daniel Díaz Torres

Reviewed by Glenn Erickson

Cuban cinema is a state-run industry called the Instituto Cubano del Arte e Industrias Cinematográficos. As expected, ICAIC films from the 1960s usually present strong pro- revolutionary themes. Thrillers warn Cubans about foreign agents engaged in sabotage, while a documentary on the Bay of Pigs invasion combines newsreel footage with montages of text slogans and portraits of Communist leaders like Ho Chi Minh.

If an ICAIC film, even a comedy, ridiculed an aspect of Cuban life, more often than not the problem would be identified as a remnant of the pre-Castro past. Daniel Díaz Torres' 1991 fantasy Alice in Wondertown (Alicia en el pueblo de Maravillas) satirizes life in the socialist system without mercy. It was banned after only four days of exhibition, and was withheld from public viewing for several years.

In a text interview excerpt contained with First Run Film's DVD, director Torres claims the revolutionary high ground and charges that his detractors were intolerant. He explains that Alice in Wondertown was made just after the fall of the Berlin Wall, when the entire Eastern Bloc collapsed. Cuba was suddenly quite isolated. In this "Special Period", Cuban officials were less tolerant of criticism of public policies.

Jesús Díaz' story has no difficulty drawing parallels between modern Cuban life and Lewis Carroll's mad fantasy. Sick of her job in Havana, lovely drama teacher Alicia Diaz (Thais Valdés) volunteers to work in a remote town called Maravillas ("Wonders"). Her boyfriend can't talk her into changing her mind. Alicia reaches the mystery town in a broken-down cab because the only bus has broken down. She checks into a shabby hotel run by a rude woman who resents her presence. When cockroaches overrun her room, Alicia must dash into the street to find someone to kill them. Opening her medicine cabinet, she comes face to face with the hotel guest next door, trying to shave.

Alicia is shocked to discover that the town of Maravillas is hopelessly dysfunctional. Nobody she meets seems to have a goal or to be doing meaningful work. Her boss in the cultural center has little on his mind beyond sustaining the hierarchy he's established. Alicia's efforts to be productive or even have a constructive conversation are met with suspicious questions.

Disorganized construction projects abound. Trash blows in the streets; Alicia ruins her shoes trying to walk on the oily pavement. Buildings are decorated with meaningless slogans and ugly artwork. The food is horrible and nothing works correctly. To top it all off, unusual zoo animals wander freely in the streets. Alicia asks what they're doing there, and is told that a zoo was planned for the city. The animals were delivered, but no cages to put them in.

Alicia meets residents that have been sent to Maravillas as punishment for mistakes, or were denounced back in the city by people who coveted their jobs. A man with a good job was harassed by an anonymous letter campaign. When he finally lost his temper, his outburst resulted in a demotion and eventual exile. Another resident was a truck driver, exiled to Maravillas after having his cargo stolen in a con game.

When Alicia finally starts work she encounters demoralizing resistance. The members of her playgroup interrupt her rehearsals with little job actions, challenging her artistic choices and her authority. An animator solicits Alicia's opinion of one of his shows. It's a cynical children's cartoon about a bird that gets eaten by a cat. When Alice complains that the defeatist film is unsuitable for children, she's labeled a troublemaker opposed to the community spirit.

Alicia wants out. But the town's borders are guarded and her boss has her watched. Her only choice is to try to escape.

Alice in Wondertown makes its points with humor, although the pervading feeling is of a Kafkaesque futility. The Cuban sense of humor has a fatalistic, "What can one do?" quality. Conditions don't improve because making the effort to change them would imply that those in authority aren't doing their job. Critics quickly become unpopular.

Behind the jokes and minor acts of comic cruelty, the script makes some serious observations about state-run organizations. The stress on equality in the Cuban "worker's paradise" discourages the efforts of the best and the brightest. Alicia's attempts to teach are stymied by arrogant, combative students that challenge the basis of the student-teacher relationship. Why should her opinion be more important than theirs? Maravillas' problem is a "tyranny of mediocrity".

Director Torres frames his film as a long flashback containing several more interior flashbacks. Little animated inserts are used for transitions. The town looks as if it were improvised in a spirit of fun, with crazy "buildings" made of scrap lumber and rags. Visual and organizational chaos is the norm. Thais Valdés plays Alicia in a constant state of confusion, butting her head against a hopelessly muddled state of affairs. How can she expect Maravillas to make sense, when camels and zebras roam the streets?

First Run Features' DVD of Alice in Wondertown is sourced through their East German connection with the DEFA film library. A brief text insert contains helpful background on the movie, review bites and a short interview excerpt with the director. A humorous German short titled Paul Kopinzky is an anti-bureaucratic joke that fits in well with the theme of the main feature.

Unfortunately, the DVD transfer has serious drawbacks. The source is a positive print marred by the removal of unwanted subtitles. Blurring them out obscures parts of the image. English titles are superimposed over these but the effect is often distracting. Colors are acceptable but the contrast is rather harsh in nighttime scenes. The full frame image may have been reformatted from 1:66 and the compositions often look crowded. Digital combing occurs frequently, perhaps indicating a format conversion problem. Alice in Wondertown is recommended viewing, but don't expect DVD image quality.

On a scale of Excellent, Good, Fair, and Poor,
Alice in Wondertown rates:
Movie: Good
Video: Fair
Sound: Good
Supplements: Short subject Paul Kopinzky, text insert on the film and its director.
Packaging: Keep case
Reviewed: March 28, 2009

Republished by permission of Turner Classic Movies .

DVD Savant Text © Copyright 2009 Glenn Erickson

See more exclusive reviews on the Savant Main Page.
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